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On Saving Short Fiction

Ok, I promised grndexter I'd post on this.

There's been a lot of talk lately about how to save short fiction as a literary form. Now, leaving aside the questions of (1) whether or not short fiction is really in danger and (2) whether or not it's worth saving, let's move ahead to the question of (3) If it is in danger, and it is worth saving, how can we do so?

There are a lot of answers to that question, and most of them are good ones. Here's one that I haven't seen anybody mention yet:

We save short fiction by unpackaging it.

What do I mean by that? Simple. Short fiction usually comes in a package: A magazine, an anthology, the back of an author's business card... Short stories come packaged along with something else. Why? Because it's not economically feasible to deliver them individually. It costs about as much to to assemble, print, and deliver 15 stories as it does to deliver one.

The unfortunate consequence of this is that the short stories we want often come packaged together with stuff we don't want. It's very rare for readers to like every single story in a magazine or anthology. The sheer bulk of them is a problem, too. One of the reasons I don't subscribe to many magazines is because they pile up faster than I can read them; the stories come in such mass quantities that it's overwhelming.

The increased availability of stories via the internet has done a lot to alleviate this problem. Between Fictionwise and the online magazines, readers are getting direct access to the stories they want without having to pay for extra clutter. But downloadable stories come packaged with something a lot of readers don't really want: an electronic format. You've either got to sit in front of the screen to read it or print it out on 8 1/2 x 11 inch sheets. Both options are awkward.

Now, we authors are willing to put up with a bit of inconvenience in order to get the stories we want. This is our industry, after all. It's important for us to know what's going on in it, even if that means reading a couple of stories that aren't our style, or sitting in front of a computer screen for a few hours.

But the average reader off the street? He doesn't put up with it. Why should he buy a grab-bag of stories that he may or may not like when, for the same amount of money, he could buy a novel by an author he loves?

Do you see what's happening? The way stories are packaged is killing their chances with the reader off the street.

It would be nice if we could unpackage the stories. Or rather, it would be nice if we could give the customers the ability to package stories however they like. That way, they could have the monetary benefits of an anthology or a magazine without the unwanted stories.

Enter AnthologyBuilder. Ok, so it's not total flexibility. You can't get the stories in pure electronic format, for example. But it's moving in the right direction. My theory is that as AnthologyBuilder and similar approaches become more widespread, we'll see an increase in short fiction reading, not just among authors, but across the board.

In the heyday of pulp magazines, variety was a benefit. You couldn't find much speculative fiction back then. Readers were hungry for a broad spectrum of possibilities. Today, variety isn't the issue. You can walk into any bookstore and find a whole bookshelf devoted to science fiction and fantasy. It's specificity that we need.

The world is changing. And the short fiction market will either have to change with it, or wither up and die.


( 26 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 17th, 2007 05:16 pm (UTC)
I think AnthologyBuilder is such a cool idea! My only hesitation right now is wondering exactly how much benefit it'll actually be to the authors involved...having read the contract, it seems like the average payment per anthology inclusion is round-about 15 cents, authors won't get any royalties until their payments add up to at least $20, and I strongly suspect that that might well never happen, which would mean basically giving the stories away for free...I'd like to feel a little more certain that it really is a good thing for individual authors before giving it a try.
Dec. 17th, 2007 05:58 pm (UTC)
But isn't it just reprint rights? It's not FNASR or anything like that, as I understand it. These are previously published stories (in the main) and it allows someone to pick and create an anthology of stories of the particular style they like (or from a few particular authors, or whatever).

As the inventory grows, some kind of "if you liked this, you might like..." linkage is going to be key to get people to try new authors. It might be worth offering a "free" extra story of something people don't select, but somehow algorthmically linked to their selection. People like free stuff and I am sure I'm not the only one who is sometimes reluctant to try something "new" yet capable of enjoynig it hugely when I do come across something that engages my interest.
Dec. 17th, 2007 10:48 pm (UTC)
the free idea is a good one. My recommendation in that area would be to rather award buyers, give prolific buyers a free antho by a variety of authors and hope to snare them one ones they don't know. Or, alternatively, what one of our book chains does, is they have a club, and members get points for every purchase. After a certain amount of points, they get a discount voucher. Either one of those, or even both, could work really well.
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Dec. 17th, 2007 07:08 pm (UTC)
I've got a couple of Big Names in mind that I'd like to approach, actually, but I'm holding off on that until the site has been up and running for a bit longer.

We're still in Beta release, and I'd like to make sure the thing is flawless before inviting the VIPs on board.
Dec. 17th, 2007 06:47 pm (UTC)
Looking at the contract, I'm willing to give it a shot and see what happens. Normally I'd be very hesitant to join in on something this experimental, but the fact that the contract is non-exclusive, and can be terminated by either party at any time, went a long way toward reassuring me.

I can't imagine it being a huge money-maker unless the site really takes off. In some ways, it reminds me a bit of Amazon Shorts, only with a better contract. But I've got a few published stories that aren't doing anything for me right now. And I wouldn't mind getting in early on something I think has potential...
Dec. 17th, 2007 10:42 pm (UTC)
picking up on what tchern said - no, the writers won't get much money, at least not to begin with and the odds are still stacked against all but a handful.
However, these are all reprints, the minimum requirement being that all stories must have been published previously in a paid market.
Leaving aside the idea of something like Anthobuilder as a primary source of publication, the idea does fill a massive vacuum in the short fiction field - longevity.

This can be the sum total of the idea so far as I see it - right now, most writers sell a story, it has a brief moment in the sun and then it's gone unless the author can somehow convince a publisher to put out a collection, which is usually limited in numbers as well.
This way, the stories can remain perpetually available, a gift to fans of writers who start slow and only build big over years times. Also, very specific to online stories, it gives readers the potential to own an online story, in print.

re: royalties - true, it's very little, and very few writers could make bucks of this right now, or possibly ever. But the opportunity is there, and it's not unlike the novel field where the real money lies with the advance (the original payment for short fic), and royalties are much smaller and slow in coming anyways.
Essentially, the writers cannot give the stories away for free, because they have already received a paycheck for them. This is an opportunity to possibly make additional monies over the long term, but all that truly matters is that the fiction remains available, something which is not currently possible in all but a very small select cases in short fiction.
Dec. 17th, 2007 05:55 pm (UTC)
I've had a quick canter around the site and it looks promising; I hope to support it both as a writer and as a purchaser. I shall have to look at my contracts and work out what I can provide and when (I've sold a dozen stories but most haven't even been published yet, so it may be a while). Obviously a site like this needs a lot of content (as well as a lot of publicity - I shall push it on my blog shortly, and continue to do so hither and thither).

I'm wondering how this can best be marketed - it needs to convince people (casual readers) that these are "real" stories by "real authors", I suspect, rather than just a small clique or a self-publishing venture. Getting a few stories by names people see on bookshelves is likely to be a huge help there.

As I keep saying; I really, really hope this venture takes off. There is certainly a market for short fiction, it's a case of whether people will pay the going rate...
Dec. 18th, 2007 11:39 am (UTC)
"The Man Who Was Never Afraid" is tied up for about another 3 months, I believe. "The Box Of Beautiful Things" I'm not sure will be available - it's going to be in the IGMS anthology due out in Spring 2008 and I wil need to find out what the exclusivity or otherwise of that reprint covers.

Nothing else of mine, I fear, will be available for quite some time.
Dec. 18th, 2007 10:35 pm (UTC)
That's too bad. I would have loved to be hosting some of your stuff already.

But, hey: AnthologyBuilder will still be around in three months. And in a year or two, as well, God willing...
Dec. 20th, 2007 01:00 pm (UTC)
Be assured that I'll be checking all my contracts and annotating my submission spreadsheets with a "when can I submit this for AnthologyBuilder" tag. It may sound immodest but (along with buying stuff, which I shall be doing, and plugging it, which I have been doing) it's the best way I have of supporting the enterprise.

Dec. 17th, 2007 08:27 pm (UTC)
Not having looked at the site, but something that crossed my mind was including a "freebie" in the anthology. You know, a "buy X get Y for free".

One thing a magazine does do is introduce people to new authors, maybe make it an opt in thing. Be sure to include that the new story will not impact the S&H so that it truely is a freebie.

"Your anthology is ready to go, at no additional cost in printing or in shipping or handling, would you like to add "Story 1, 2, or 3" to your collection?"

Just a thought.
Dec. 17th, 2007 09:25 pm (UTC)
That's a very good idea. I'll have to see how smoothly we can make it work with the current implementation. Features to help promote newer authors are definitely high on the list of things I'd like to do.
Dec. 18th, 2007 12:24 am (UTC)
Great idea. Nice way to keep short stories in print indefinitely.
Dec. 19th, 2007 01:09 pm (UTC)
I think anthobuilder is a great idea, but let me play devil's advocate for a moment in hopes of making things stronger: In terms of getting this to the man on the street, the real market, how does one sell the idea of a collection which the reader has to invest effort to create? I remember when I was young, back before I started looking at the industry in earnest, I lost a lot of interest in reading because I was swamped by the deluge of option and not knowing what was good. I agree totally with you about the packaging of short fiction, but I worry that asking readers to package it on their own, such as is, will not be attractive to a casual audience.

Another question I have which I'm sure has been answered but I don't know where, is "Are anthologies seeing reduced/low sales like magazines are?" My theory is that alot of short fiction's problems stem fromt he fact that it's way easier to grab a book off the shelf than to but a subscription to a magazine which is virtually impossible to find in many bookstores anyway.
Dec. 19th, 2007 09:02 pm (UTC)
> In terms of getting this to the man on the street, the real market, how does one sell the idea of a collection which the reader has to invest effort to create?

This is an excellent question.

A suggestion . . .

Once the story database builds up a bit, perhaps have suggestions for targeted selections.

If you liked aaa, you might enjoy these selections . . .

Teenage boys who like bbb might enjoy these selections . . .
Teenage girls who like ccc might enjoy these selections . . .

Preteen boys who like ddd might enjoy these selections . . .
Preteen girls who like eee might enjoy these selections . . .

For these kind of recommendations, assume that they've never heard of Nancy Kress, or James Patrick Kelly, or Ted Chiang. Make the comparison to SF (or SF/F) that someone with even a modicum of interest in media SF (or SF/F) would be familiar with. Stuff like Babylon 5 or The Outer Limits (or The Dresden Files).
Dec. 20th, 2007 11:57 am (UTC)
Question (and it may be there and I just missed it) How are you going to deal with overseas mailings?
I like the idea and believe it should be promoted. (I am one of those odd blokes who believes shorts are the foundation for great novels) If it's OK I'll put it up on a few lists I belong to? Or would you rather wait until Beta testing is over? It's going to need volume to work - both of stories and orders.
Have you considered talking to Eric about deceased estates? He has dealt with a lot of the agents and literary executors. (for eg, I would kill for an Eric Frank Russell collection.)
For the 'it's not much money' question. For comparison please consider what you would earn for a book as a royalty, not the normal flat-fee short story sale (if you are putting a story here, you already earned that. This is 'extra'). On a paperback that would be around 64 cents. Hardback around $2.50. The pay-per-word rate on this then is better than you're going to get as a pro from a lot of anthologies - as reprint rights.
Dec. 20th, 2007 12:23 pm (UTC)
>Question (and it may be there and I just missed it) How are you going to deal with overseas mailings?

Our printer has a division overseas. If international customers use economy shipping, the shipping and handling is less than $6.

>If it's OK I'll put it up on a few lists I belong to? Or would you rather wait until Beta testing is over?

If you don't mind, let's hold off a bit for now. I'm scrambling just to keep up with the publicity the site has already been getting. I didn't expect the idea to take off quite as fast as it has, and there are still some features I think the site ought to have.

Would it be all right if I just shoot you an email when I feel ready for more publicity?

>Have you considered talking to Eric about deceased estates?

Hadn't even thought of it. That's a great idea. Thanks!
Dec. 20th, 2007 12:45 pm (UTC)
Nancy said:
>If you don't mind, let's hold off a bit for now. I'm scrambling just to keep up with the publicity the site has already been getting. I didn't expect the idea to take off quite as fast as it has, and there are still some features I think the site ought to have.

Would it be all right if I just shoot you an email when I feel ready for more publicity?
And while tossing ideas out -- I know a lot of artists from the Art Director gig at JBU. What about pay-per-use covers? Might cost a little extra for those who want it. A lot of my artists are selling reprint rights anyway... and this has side effect for them too. If they can say 'well my covers are chosen for 10% of the Anthology Builder sales' to the art director who is cover-artist hunting... It's a good advert for them. As a statistician the data on what people choose (colors, picture types) I would think would be information worth paying a lot of money for (But then I am fisheries scientist and author not a publisher. I don't really understand them at all.)

Dec. 20th, 2007 06:32 pm (UTC)
Pay-per-use covers are in the works--still tweaking the software.

But, silly me, it didn't even occur to me to tap into the JBU artist pool. I'll definitely drop a pebble in those waters as soon as cover art submissions are up and running.
Dec. 20th, 2007 07:38 pm (UTC)
happy to do that for you when you are ready. I have made some good friends among them (the artist who did pastry run, for eg.) and also encountered a few I would be wary about. Most however are good value.
Dec. 20th, 2007 01:03 pm (UTC)
Re. deceased estates - It's certainly a great way, potentially, to get some back catalogues out, if they aren't still tied to a particular publisher.

You get some Zelazny stuff in there, forex, and I'm a very very happy man.
Dec. 20th, 2007 01:16 pm (UTC)
me too. I rate him as my favorite author. But I suspect you will only get some of the more obscure, older ones. And some of the agents/exectors can damned silly about money for that sort of material.
Dec. 27th, 2007 10:06 am (UTC)
I'm very impressed - this looks like a marvellous venture, and I wish you every success... This is definitely a great direction for short fiction to be headed in.

I'm sure there's concern about having a huge library of short stories, equally unknown and hence unpurchased by the casual "browser." Perhaps links to reviews at Tangent or The Fix would help here (and vice versa...). In the long term, maybe even an option for user reviews...

In any case, best of luck and success. And Yay you!

Dec. 27th, 2007 10:09 am (UTC)
Re: Kudos!
Ooh... links to external reviews are a very good idea. It wouldn't be too hard to incorporate that into the current system, either...
Sep. 24th, 2008 11:29 pm (UTC)
My take on AnthologyBuilder.com
I have posted a blog of several paragraphs at http://swopedesign.com/personal_blog/personal-blog.html regarding my take on AnthologyBuilder.com. There is a lot of potential here. As an author, my stories are not likely to ever see the light of day again after they've been published in a magazine or literary quarterly, etc. So there won't be any more pay coming in from those stories, either. So what does it hurt to earn $.15 here and there with the stories and to broaden readership and awareness?

There is a lot to be done to market AnthologyBuilder.com to make it worthwhile for visitors. There are a lot of good stories already in the database (mine included *g*). With all the planets in perfect alignment, the reading community can recommend writers to one another (forum on the Antho site!) and increase sales. This word-of-mouth advertising can be viral. So tell everyone you know about anthologybuilder.com!
Jan. 1st, 2009 08:48 am (UTC)
Self Publishing
This site would be even better if you did add the section of unpublished stories. For $14.95 per Anthology, I would put all of my short stories up, 16 of which have been published by non paying markets and create my own anthology as a means of self publishing on a very affordable scale.
( 26 comments — Leave a comment )




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